Window Shopping: Is Enzo Fernández Worth A Record-Breaking Transfer?
11:33 AM EST on January 6, 2023
Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
One of the most jarring side effects of a mid-season World Cup is that the post-tournament gold rush is happening now, rather than in the summer. With soccer's January transfer window open, players who showed out in Qatar are being linked with big-money transfers even as the season plows on into its second half. This makes transfer prognostication a more difficult challenge, as selling clubs weigh getting huge windfalls now versus keeping their young budding stars for the late-season pushes that will help them achieve their respective goals. On the flip side, buying clubs might be more inclined to spend extra money to grab those players now, both to bolster their own ranks and stop other teams from jumping in during the busier summer season.
With that in mind, there is not a better case study for this tension than that of Benfica's Enzo Fernández. Anyone who watched Argentina's run to the World Cup trophy will likely be intimately familiar with Fernández: After not starting in the first two games for the Albiceleste, including that shocking 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, Fernández came into the lineup and never left again as Argentina won five in a row to clinch its third World Cup trophy. Fernández's insertion in the midfield was one of the key reasons for that run: His talents slotted in perfectly behind Lionel Messi and his cohort of attackers, and gave Argentina both passing creativity and dynamic movement in the center of the park. For his troubles, Fernández walked away not just a World Cup winner, but also the recipient of the tournament's Best Young Player award.
Immediately after the end of the tournament, the transfer rumors began. How could they not? Here is a 21-year-old midfielder who dominated on the biggest stage of international play, following a start to the club season wherein he was one of Benfica's best players. Even if there had been no World Cup and therefore no starring performance, Fernández's name would be swirling around the nebulous transfer market rumor mill; the World Cup just raised the volume and the prices.
Now, Benfica has a choice to make: Does the club compromise in order to move Fernández for somewhere around €90 million, or does it hold fast and make any prospective buyers drop the full €120 million release clause for the Argentine's services? Similarly, will any club pay that amount now, or will the market hold until the summer, when the immediate hype of the World Cup dies down a bit? This would normally not be a question, if the World Cup had happened in the summer, though perhaps some enterprising club would have purchased Fernández before he broke out. That's not the world we are living in, though, and so the potential (and, really, the eventual) sale of Fernández will shake up at least two teams' seasons just as they are getting going into the real juicy parts.
What Are The Rumors?
Chelsea has a lot of money, and seemingly little idea of how to use it to get results. The Blues have been on a slump in the Premier League: six points in their last eight domestic games is not a good recipe for a top-four finish, and the club sits in 10th at the moment. If there is a standard profile for a club looking to drop a huge chunk of cash in January, it's what Chelsea looks like right now, so it's not surprising that the club is looking to bolster its squad quickly with someone of Fernández's caliber:
Similarly, Liverpool is in dire need of midfielders—any midfielders who aren't injured, old, or 90 Percent Of Jordan Henderson's Performances. The Pool Boys don't appear to be as close to signing Fernández as Chelsea, though, with the club reportedly telling Benfica that it will not pay the release clause under any circumstances.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
The rumors appear to be true, but what is less clear is whether they will lead to a January move for Fernández. Benfica does appear to be holding firm on the release clause; manager Roger Schmidt said as much on Thursday:
The ball is then in Chelsea's court, and it's been hard to figure out what new-ish owner Todd Boehly will do next. It makes sense that Benfica will not compromise on the clause, especially in January, so will Boehly make Fernández the most expensive central midfielder ever? Or will he wait until summer to try to negotiate down from the €120 million into something close to the €85 million mentioned above? There's a bit under a month left for him to decide, and for Benfica's will to be tested. If Benfica holds on to the player, then perhaps Liverpool or other clubs will jump in the fray this summer.
What Does He Do?
If the ball is at Fernández's feet, he can do it all. Specifically, he is a creator up the field, ranking in the top 10 percentile for essentially every attacking statistic among midfielders playing at his level of Europe (below the top five leagues on the continent). Especially of note, Fernández notches almost five shot-creating actions per game, good for the top two percent, and grabs an assist every five games or so, a huge number for a player who doesn't play on the front line of an attack.
Even when he doesn't have the ball, his off-ball movement is precise and valuable. Given his shooting prowess and the willingness to make something happen, getting into empty spaces in and around the opponent box turns Fernández into another attacking weapon for his sides. While his finishing is not the best (he's scoring at about half the rate of his xG), it's still more than most midfielders.
With his cannon of a shot, he can rip bombs through small margins of space, a valuable tool for a good club facing the packed-in defenses of lesser sides:
He averages 2.23 shots per game, so he's not shy, either. In all, this makes Fernández both a deep creator and a battering ram shuttling the ball into dangerous positions, and there is always value for a line-breaking player of that profile.
What Doesn't He Do?
Well, Fernández isn't really a defensive midfielder. That's not who he is trying to be, but it does pop up in his game. He's not the most physically gifted defender, nor the best tackler, and the numbers paint a picture of a player who is much better in attack. He doesn't intercept the ball at an elite level, though his ball awareness makes him passable there if he's playing more of a No. 8 role than a pure destroyer/shield for the backline. He's also not fast enough to cover for his own mistakes, nor is he big enough to be an aerial presence, either in the middle of the park or off set pieces. He's more likely to be taking free kicks than getting a head on them.
The other flaw in Fernández's game is that he has not been consistent at a top level. That's not really his fault, given his age and career trajectory, but even during the World Cup, there were certain moments of uncertainty, particularly in defense. Improvements in those areas come with time, though, so it's more something to note for clubs expecting him to be his best form at all times, rather than a huge red flag.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
As he showed in the World Cup, Fernández needs multiple central midfielders next to him to reach his full potential. Whenever he was not the midfielder furthest back from the opposing goal, he was a menace. This makes him perfect for a 4-3-3 formation, or even a packed-in diamond, such as the one Real Madrid ran, at times, during its Champions League domination last decade. If he has free rein to both bomb forward and stay deep to spray passes, Fernández is unstoppable in the center of the park. His passes, shooting, movement, and general spatial skills make him dangerous, so long as he has cover.
If, on the other hand, he is playing either as the base of a midfield three or alongside just one other midfielder, then Fernández loses a lot of what makes him potentially worth over €100 million. He can still do those jobs fine, especially if his midfield partner is of a more destroyer, but if his job is to shield the defense and just spray passes to either the wing-backs or his fellow midfielders, then what is the point of employing him? The dynamism that made him so exciting for Argentina dimmed when national team manager Lionel Scaloni was forced to tell Fernández to stay back, and any club who signs him would be wise to not let that happen too often.
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager's position, the fans' outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
Fans who don't want South American players to make the leap directly to top clubs would hate to see Fernández thrive in the Premier League. Usually, those fans are supporters of clubs like Benfica, who scout South America and bring over players on good deals before offloading them quickly for ridiculous amounts of money. That's a pretty standard route for, say, an Argentine prospect to take, but it also makes one wonder why so many clubs missed out on Fernández before he moved to Portugal.
Take the case of his former River Plate teammate Julián Álvarez. Just like Fernández, Álvarez was a very well-regarded prospect for the Argentine giants, but instead of making a move to one of Europe's smaller clubs, the forward went directly to Manchester City (albeit with a loan back to River Plate). Though Álvarez didn't have quite as incredible a World Cup as Fernández, he still made a splash, and if he were not already at one of the richest clubs in the world, I'd probably talk about him for a future Window Shopping feature. Instead, City was able to scoop him up early and lock him in before the hype truly caught up with the talent.
If Fernández is able to showcase his talent in England, then perhaps more clubs will take a look at South America for players who are ready to contribute now, rather than either getting raw prospects (like Real Madrid has with its Brazilian wingers) or letting a middleman club bring them over to Europe.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
Fernández is as good a signing as a 21-year-old central midfielder can be, but that doesn't explain his price tag. That makes this section a bit harder, if price is to be considered for a potential bust. It's doubtful that Fernández will flop fully; he has too many tools at a young age to not grow into a quality midfielder. But can any central midfielder, barring prime-era Luke Modric or someone of that sort, be worth so much money? It's hard to say.
If Chelsea, or whoever else secures the Argentine's signature, can get away with something a bit more reasonable—calling €85 million reasonable is as much a sign of the times as anything—then Fernández's ability to live up to a price tag shoots through the roof. He can be a piece, even a key piece, for any top team looking for the highest honors in European soccer, and his talent might only grow exponentially in the years to come.
As a player, it's hard to see him becoming a bust. As a point on a club's balance sheet, it's much easier to imagine a failure of expectations. Whether that matters for anyone except the very rich owners of these clubs is left to the individual to decide. I don't care, personally, so Fernández should be a boon for whoever adds him to the squad. For these reasons, Enzo Fernández grades at a 81.6 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.
Soccer et cetera blogger. Don't ask him to stop saying "Pool Boys," he never will.
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